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Talking with the Chronicle

A Conversation with Bill Gates: The Role of Technology in Higher Education


On Tablets in the Classroom
"Just giving people devices ... has a really horrible track record."

You have been interested in education for quite a while. I was looking back at your 1995 book, The Road Ahead, and you laid out a vision of education and how it could be transformed with technology. It seems like some of that vision is still only just emerging, so many years later. Did it take longer than you thought it would?

Oh sure. Education has not been changed. That is, institutional education, whether it's K-12 or higher education, has not been substantially changed by the Internet. And we've seen that with other waves of technology. Where we had broadcast TV people thought would change things. We had early time-sharing computing—so-called CAI, computer-assisted instruction—where people could do these drills, and people thought that would change things. So it's easy to say that people have been overoptimistic in the past. But I think this wave is quite different. I think it's more fundamental. And we can say that individual education has changed. That is, for the highly-motivated student, the ability to go online and find lectures of various length—to see class materials—there's a lot of people who are learning far better because of those materials. But it's much harder to then take it for the broad set of students in the institutional framework and decide, OK, where is technology the best and where is the face-to-face the best. And they don't have very good metrics of what is their value-added. If you try and compare two universities, you'll find out a lot more about the inputs—this university has high SAT scores compared to this one. And it's sort of the opposite of what you'd think. You'd think people would say, "We take people with low SATs and make them really good lawyers." Instead they say, "We take people with very high SATs and we don't really know what we create, but at least they're smart when they show up here so maybe they still are when we're done with them." So it's a field without a kind of clear metric that then you can experiment and see if you're still continuing to achieve it.

So who's to blame? Are there things like the U.S. News rankings or other pressures that give colleges the wrong incentives?

Well there certainly is a perverse set of incentives to a lot of universities to compete for the best students. And whether that comes out in terms of being more selective or investing in sort of the living experience, it's probably not where you'd like the innovation and energy to go. You'd like it to go into the completion rates, the quality of the employees that get generated by the learning experience. The various rankings have focused on the input side of the equation, not the output.

There's a moving moment in Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs that describes a time when you visited Mr. Jobs at his house not long before his passing, and the two you reflected on the innovations you both led in technology. I understand that one thing Steve Jobs asked you that day was about how technology could change education. What did you tell him?

Well, I'd been involved in the education space because of my full-time foundation work. And so I'd been able to get out to various charter schools, to inner-city high schools, to community colleges, different universities, and learn about the financial situation about what discourages kids. And based on that, you get more of a sense of, OK where can technology come in? If the kids don't have to come to the campus quite as often, that would be good. But then what's the element that technology can't deliver? And it's through that that I really have developed a lot of optimism that we can build a hybrid. Something that's not purely digital but also that the efficiency of the face-to-face time is much greater. Where you take the kid who's demotivated or confused, or where something needs to be a group collaboration as opposed to the lecture. So I talked about the vision and what type of innovators we should draw in.

Tablet computers are big these days. The Surface tablet was just released by Microsoft last week, and iPads are all over campuses, but it doesn't sound like your approach has been to give devices to students and hope things change that way. What do you think needs to happen for factors like tablets to really make a difference? Or is that not even part of the equation?

Just giving people devices has a really horrible track record. You really have to change the curriculum and the teacher. And it's never going to work on a device where you don't have a keyboard-type input. Students aren't there just to read things. They're actually supposed to be able to write and communicate. And so it's going to be more in the PC realm—it's going to be a low-cost PC that lets them be highly interactive.

But the device is not the key limiting factor at this point, at least in most countries. If we ever get the curriculum to be super, super good, then the access piece, which is the most expensive part, will be challenging, requiring special policies to let people get access. The device, you'll be able to check out of the library a portable PC, so I don't see that as the key thing right now.


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